Hey, it's pretty depressing to be a long-time minor league vet toiling away on the farm, all the while knowing that you're blocked from making the big club no matter what you do. Try vaulting talent like Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young, and Jason Kubel. BB King would feel blue for you.
That's the situation Garrett Jones found himself in at Minnesota. He had spent parts of eleven seasons and over 1,000 games in the minors, where he was a middlin' prospect who had hit 36 homers and driven in 162 runs during the 2007-08 seasons while hitting .280.
But overall during those years, Jones hit .258 with 158 HR’s, a .312 OBP, and 629 RBI in 4,185 AB’s, not exactly a line to make Morneau and Cuddyer peek over their shoulders in fear of their jobs.
Drafted in the 14th round of the draft in 1999 by Atlanta out of high school, Jones sent three seasons in the Brave bushes, where he was released and taken in by the Twins. He spent from 2005 on at AAA Rochester, serving as an insurance policy for the big club.
Jones had a stop in the show in 2007 and fizzled, hitting .208 with 2 homers in 77 at-bats for the Twins after being called up three different times. Heck, he was even taken off the 40-man roster and waived in 2008, and no one claimed him.
His knock was that he swung out of his shoes, and as a result struck out 958 times in the minors. Everyone thought the 28 year-old was a quad A player.
And with that rep, it was no surprise that the Pirates inked him to a minor-league free agent contract in late December, 2008. After all, the Pirates were ground zero for AAAA talent.
Actually, the truth is he was semi-recruited by Tom Gorzelanny after the season, a brother Illinois native (Jones hails from Harvey) who sold him on the Pirates' plan to remake the roster. Little did Gorzo know how thorough a sweeping was in store!
He wrangled an invite to camp, and went pretty deep into spring training, batting .294 with four homers in 51 at-bats. Jones carried that over to Indy, where he hit .307 with 12 homers and 50 RBI in 277 at-bats, with a .502 slugging percentage and .850 OPS.
On June 30th, he got his ticket to Pittsburgh, and started getting some regular at-bats. With Brandon Moss struggling and Adam LaRoche gone, he became a major league starter, a goal that had long eluded him. And he took full advantage.
Jones finished the year with a .293/.372/.567 line and .938 OPS, adding 21 homers and 44 RBI. He was the Rookie of the Month in July, with a .310/.361/.700 line, 10 homers, and 17 RBI. The 6-4, 245 pound slugger cooled off the next couple of months as the league's pitchers began to adjust to him, but he still hit .285 with 11 dingers and 27 RBI.
And on September 2, 2009, his second inning blast at Cincinnati was the Pirates' 10,000th all-time home run in 123 seasons, so his place in Bucco history is assured.
The major area of concern is his approach with runners on base. A .152 average with runners in scoring position is a red flag for a guy you want to plant in the middle of the order. That may just be a blip; he didn't have much of a split between RISP and season batting averages in the minors.
He also had a pretty big righty/lefty split, and that's been a career-long issue with him. Jones had a .333 average against righties, and .208 against lefties. Steve Pearce hit .268 against LHP and .174 against RHP, so we'd suppose the thought of platooning them is at least being considered for early 2010. Spring camp should sort that out.
His fielding was just OK. He had a +2.4 UZR at first, and a -6.9 UZR in right. He had about the performance you would expect for a big galoot first baseman transplanted to the outfield, often struggling with routes, leading to balls rolling to the wall.
But his range was acceptable, as was his arm; he wasn't Manny-like. And he had only played 234 games in the pasture in the minors, so it wasn't exactly like he was getting back on the bike in right field.
Still, there's little doubt he's better suited to be a first baseman, and by mid-season Jose Tabata (or Lastings Milledge) and Brandon Moss should be patrolling the Clemente Wall, relieving him of that duty.
His performance was duly noted by Baseball America, which named him to its All-Rookie team at the end of October.
But the question is: Is he a one-shot wonder, or a late bloomer? His last two months project him as a .280's hitter with 30 home run potential. But the NL pitching coaches have an entire off season to put together a book on him, so the cat-and-mouse game of adjustments will be telling in 2010.
His age shouldn't be an albatross. Jones is exactly what the Pirates lust for, a player that won't be arbitration eligible until 2012. So his near future here should be based on performance, not the Grecian Formula factor.
And there is a good example out there of a guy that figured it out later rather than sooner. Kevin Millar started out at the age of 27, and he put together a pretty good decade since then before injuries caught up to him.
One thing's for sure. Unless something out of the blue strikes, he'll celebrate his first opening day ever as a major leaguer when April 2, 2010, rolls around.
(The Baseball Writers' Association of America begins handing out its postseason awards today, with the National League and American League Rookie of the Year honors up first. The two winners will be announced at 2 p.m. So we thought we'd give a little love to the Bucs pair of candidates, Jones and Andrew McCutchen, who will be featured tomorrow.)